On a lovely day in March 2021, Helen Neff, an Incline Village resident, headed out for a walk. At the Northwood/Southwood intersection on SR-28, she hit the button to activate the walk signal. When it flashed green, she stepped into the street. When she was halfway across, a vehicle that was turning left into the intersection ripped through the crosswalk, crashing into Neff and hurling her into oncoming traffic.
“There are no words to describe what it is like to be hit by a 2-ton SUV,” Neff told Moonshine Ink. “The car came out of nowhere and was being driven so fast that I had no time to react. I was hit hard, and my body was thrown over 11 feet into oncoming traffic.”
Somehow Neff’s life was spared, although her recovery has been long and challenging.
That day, Neff was flown on a helicopter to Renown Hospital in Reno. One week later she was flown on an emergency medical air ambulance from Reno to the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center, where she underwent three surgeries. Eventually she was transferred to a rehab hospital and then to a rental home that could accommodate a wheelchair ramp. Neff has another surgery coming up this October. She suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.
The driver who hit Neff was found guilty of reckless driving with disregard of safety of person or property. For this charge, the driver had to pay a fine, pay restitution, serve 75 hours of community service, and have their driver’s license suspended for six months. They were also sentenced to six months of jail time; however, that sentence could be suspended if they complied with the other requirements, which, according to Neff, they did.
“I just went for a walk on a beautiful spring day, and it was 52 days before I was able to return to my home in Incline Village,” Neff said. “The costs of such a crash — to me, my family, EMTs and first responders, healthcare (especially in the midst of the Covid pandemic), law enforcement, the district attorney, the justice system, insurance companies, and society are immense.”
Neff’s story is one of many reflecting an escalation of danger on our local roadways. It’s an entangled tale involving a rise in speeding and reckless driving along with more people and more deaths. Here are some of the tragedies, the studies, and the solutions that agencies are examining.
Surge in incidents
Speeding, reckless driving, and highway violence have all increased in Tahoe/Truckee in recent years, said California Highway Patrol Officer Carlos Perez. He told Moonshine Ink that the uptick is because there are more people in the area and drivers are increasing their speeds.
“A lot of people moved here back in 2020, so the last couple years we definitely have seen an increase in traffic,” Perez said. “With that also adds more calls … Since 2020, we’ve definitely seen an increase in traffic, speeders, and complaints.”
The adjacent charts show the dramatic increase in CHP response to vehicular incidents. Speeding tickets issued were up 31% in 2021 compared to 2019; reports of reckless driving went up 127%; and highway violence calls up 105%.
Local increases reflect an escalation nationwide. According to the U.S. DOT National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s May 2022 report, overall roadway fatalities in the country have increased by 10.5% to 42,915 fatalities in 2021 compared to 38,824 fatalities in 2020. In the same timeframe, pedestrian-related fatalities swelled 13% while speed-related fatalities grew by 5%.
Locals are the ones largely reporting speed violations, particularly on Highway 89 between Truckee and Tahoe City, Perez told Moonshine Ink, and oftentimes the callers get upset about inaction.
“We put our units out there and, you know, sometimes people get frustrated, and are like, ‘Well where are they at?’ Well, we’re out there, but there’s one officer out there. We can’t be down at Tahoe City and up in Olympic Valley at the same,” Perez said. “So, it’s just like Whac-A-Mole. We stop somebody, give them a ticket, and then another one pops up.” He said that Highway 267 between Truckee and Kings Beach is also a hotspot for speeding and complaints.
The local CHP has three to four officers working daily, covering the local district spanning North Lake Tahoe, the West Shore, and Truckee. Perez explains that it is a large area to cover and he wishes there were more staff.
When asked whether it is locals or out-of-towners who are violating the speed limits, Perez was uncertain; however he did concede that during busy tourism seasons such as summer and winter, “I could confidently say it’s gonna be more out-of-towners, for sure, during that period.”
Perez said highways 89 and 267 are particularly concerning because the roads are undivided, which increases the risks of accidents. The two-lane roads don’t have any physical barriers to separate the flows of traffic which is why the speed limit is 55 mph. Going over the speed limit increases the risk of losing control and causing a head-on collision, Perez said, since there is no barrier to stop the driver from swerving into the other lane.
“When there’s no center barrier, if you do end up losing control or going head on, the consequences are grave; they could be fatal,” Perez said. “We’ve had head-on fatal crashes on 89 and 267 and we’ve also had major injuries.”
Sadly, his comments from that conversation, held on Aug. 25, were prophetic. The very next day a fatal incident occurred on 89 north of Goose Meadows when a northbound commercial truck driver, traveling at an undetermined speed, crossed over the double yellow lines and entered the southbound lane directly into oncoming traffic. Three southbound vehicles were struck, one of which was driven by a 37-year-old resident from Olympic Valley who sustained fatal injuries. Among the other drivers whose vehicles were hit was a 42-year-old resident from Arizona and a 42-year-old resident from Truckee who was transferred to Tahoe Forest Hospital in Truckee for minor injuries. The passenger of the truck that swerved into the oncoming lane was also transported to the hospital for minor injuries. This incident is still under investigation.
Perez told Moonshine Ink that the investigating officer on the case has sent a warrant request to a Placer County judge so they can pull the “black box” from the truck to determine what the speed was at the time of the crash. Once the judge issues the warrant, the investigation team will be able to determine what the speed was. Perez also noted that a mechanical inspection is being done on the truck to determine if there were any mechanical issues prior to the crash.
More people, more problems, more widespread
Perez said issues with vehicles are now more geographically pervasive in North Tahoe and Truckee. Whereas in earlier years, incidents were mostly on the freeway and highways, now they are occurring regularly at Lake Tahoe and in neighborhoods.
This summer, Katie Biggers, executive director of the Tahoe City Downtown Association, experienced the devastating aftermath of a vehicle out of control at the lake. On the morning of July 26, TCDA employee Raymond Kenneth Elam was driving a golf cart down the main street in Tahoe City watering flower baskets along the roadway when he was struck by a vehicle from behind. Elam was ejected from the cart and killed upon impact. The incident is still under investigation, so it is not yet known if the vehicle that hit Elam was speeding.
Biggers has since taken over watering the flowers each morning, a task now fraught with trepidation.
“As somebody that’s been out there every morning after the incident, it has been pretty terrifying to see the amount of people that are out there speeding, and also texting. I clearly have a little bit of PTSD from the accident and from losing one of my own,” she said.
Biggers believes locals speed in the mornings when commuting to work and tourists are speeding throughout the day. “I can speak to the fact that in the morning folks are driving way too fast in the downtown corridor,” she said.
She also said the influx of newcomers and tourists in the area is leading to more speeding instances around North Tahoe.
“[Tourists and newcomers] are used to a more fast-paced lifestyle than we have here at the lake,” she said. “I think that our tourists need to be a little bit more educated on getting onto Tahoe time.” Tourists are not aware of the rules of our local roads and more signage would be beneficial, she said, especially upon entering the Tahoe City area where the speed limit changes drastically.
“I think it just needs to be brought to the attention of everybody,” she said. “I’m hoping that some good positive change will come from this tragedy.”
Take care, take action
Once Neff recovered from her injuries and the legal case regarding the crash came to a conclusion, she made it her mission to make our local streets safer for pedestrians. In January of this year, Neff reached out to Take Care Tahoe, a collective group of more than 50 organizations aiming to educate locals and visitors on how to best care for the natural environment here as well as the community as a whole.
“I’ve always been a big fan of Take Care. I love their brand. I love the graphics,” Neff said. She explains that their past campaigns such as “Drink Tahoe Tap” and “Leave No Trace” inspired her and she believes they do a great job at educating the public on community issues.
When Neff approached Take Care with her story it became clear that road safety was an issue that Take Care wanted to bring awareness to, said Jeff Cowen, public information officer for the group.
In collaboration with Neff, Take Care launched a new sector of their campaign called “Take it Slow, Tahoe” which works to bring awareness to road and vehicle safety. An event was held at Sand Harbor earlier this summer to launch the campaign. Signage with campaign graphics will be displayed around Tahoe and are available for anyone to order and display on their own residential properties, at takecaretahoe.org.
In Truckee, the town responded to increased roadway issues with the Town of Truckee Town Wide Local Road Safety Plan released in June. According to the report, 1,167 vehicle crashes took place in Truckee from 2010–2019, 32% of which were due to excessive speeds.
The town underwent the road safety plan in order to understand the users and issues as well as identifying and prioritizing proven solutions to address them, according to Bronwyn Roberts, the town public information officer. In a roadways survey conducted for the plan in which 80% of participants were full-time Truckee residents, speeding was identified as the most common area of concern. The most recurring suggestions from the public survey for speed management include “increased enforcement, road behavior education, traffic calming, additional signs, lowering speed limits.”
The plan outlines solutions addressing road safety issues and an implementation plan. Construction projects, education for motorist and pedestrians, maintaining an accurate collision data base, and speed management are all key elements to the solutions outlined.
“We have a very active community that share and interact on roadways on multiple modes of transport, including transit, personal vehicles, electric bicycles, bicycles, and walking,” Roberts said. “The goal of the LRSP is to improve the safety of all road users within the town by reducing fatalities and serious injuries.”
Speed equals more death
As many studies through the years show, speeding reduces a driver’s reaction and stopping time in an accident, which can determine the difference between life or death.
In a report released last year, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, a charitable research and education organization, laid out how gravely speed impacts drivers and vehicles. Researchers repeatedly crashed three 2010 Honda CR-Vs, known for high ratings in safety, in the same situation, at varying speeds — 40, 50, and 56 miles per hour. A dummy with sensors was the proxy for a human driver.
Researchers found that even these relatively small increases in speed led to exponentially more severe injuries and reduced the probability of surviving. At 40 mph, the driver compartment experienced “minimal intrusion.” But at 50 mph, “there was noticeable deformation of the driver side door opening, dashboard, and foot area.” And at 56 mph, “the vehicle interior was significantly compromised, with the dummy’s sensors registering severe neck injuries and a likelihood of fractures to the long bones in the lower leg.”
In the crashes at 50 and 56 mph, the dummy’s head went through the deployed airbag (known as “bottoming out”) smashing into the steering wheel and suffering what would likely be facial fractures or a severe brain injury. In essence, a crash that is easily survivable at 40 mph can be fatal at 50 mph or more.
People aren’t the only ones at risk when it comes to vehicles going too fast. Many, many animals die on roads each year, and increased speeds mean more deaths, even leading to unsustainable species decline.
“There’s a direct correlation between wildlife being hit by cars and how fast the cars are going,” said U.C. Davis Road Ecology Center Director Fraser Shilling. “The faster we drive, the more likely we are to hit wildlife if they try to cross the road.”
The issue is a sleeper with deadly and costly consequences, according to the ecology center. From a report released last year, From Wildlife-Vehicle Conflict to Solutions for California Wildlife & Drivers: “Wildlife-vehicle collisions continues to be an under-recognized and under-reported threat to wildlife populations and to drivers in certain areas.”
According to the report, 65,379 incidents of roadkill were reported in California between 2009 and 2020, but the researchers emphasize that this number does not include all roadkill, just what has been reported to the California Roadkill Observation System and by CHP. Key hot spots for roadkill identified in the report include the Sacramento/Placerville area along Interstate 80 and US Route 50 as well as State Route 49 in the Sierra Nevada foothills.
Wildlife species are declining due to the incidences of animals being hit and killed by vehicles, Shilling said, and that decline is unsustainable for some species. Mountain lions and black bears are particularly susceptible because they range such large areas, often crossing roads and highways. “Even common species like mule deer may be experiencing unsustainable levels of mortality,” stated the 2021 report.
Drought plays a role in roadkill as well, he added, because lack of water means the animals are moving around in attempt to find water sources and are more likely to come into contact with busy roads.
Collisions between wildlife and vehicles have cost California between $1 billion and $2 billion over the past five years, according to the report. This estimate is based on costs to public agencies, property damage, and insurance claimed.
A driver going over the speed limit is not the best indication of the risks to wildlife because the speed limits in certain areas are too high to begin with when it comes to preventing roadkill, Shilling said.
“If you’re going 25 mph, it’s going to be very likely, you’re gonna be able to avoid hitting something, even if it’s like a bouncing ball and a kid running behind it or an animal, whatever it is, 25 miles an hour is good,” he said. “But as you get up closer to 45 or to freeway speeds, then it’s gonna be much more difficult, especially where it’s curvy and where there’s vegetation right up to the edge of the road and an animal can jump right out.”
Solutions such as legislative action and roadway safety measures would reap net benefits in terms of the lives of drivers and animals, as well as reduced costs, the report stated.
Shilling told Moonshine Ink that the three best ways to prevent roadkill are to drive slowly, implement fencing alongside the roads, and to just not drive. Fencing around the highways that border Lake Tahoe would be most beneficial according to Shilling because animals are constantly crossing these highways to get to the lake, as it is their main water source.
Neff told Moonshine Ink that the year after she was hit by a reckless driver is a year she wishes she could forget, although she knows she never will. She spent that year doing everything she could to recover from her immense injuries. She said she is now physically put back together but she is still drained mentally from the crash.
“A vehicle being driven recklessly or over the speed limit or without regard to safety can be a lethal weapon,” Neff said. “What happened to me can happen to anyone. I don’t want anyone else to suffer what I endured.”